It is not very often that you hear about a community engaged learning component being integrated into a Biology course. The Locust Hill Cemetery project fit in seamlessly with course-based laboratory activities and fieldwork of Dr. Janet Morrison, Dr. Matt Wund and Dr. Luke Butler this past fall semester.
These Biology professors first got involved with the project when TCNJ journalism professor, Dr. Kim Pearson called a meeting for interested faculty members, initiating this multi-departmental collaboration between TCNJ and the Locust Hill Cemetery project. The goals of the project are to restore a land site in Trenton, NJ which happens to be a forgotten African American cemetery. Interestingly, this site was not recorded in Trenton city records as being a cemetery going back to the 1940s. Algernon Ward, TSC Biology alum, well-known Trenton civic leader and Locust Hill Cemetery project leader first got involved in the cemetery restoration after hearing urban myths from community members about how this abandoned lot was thought to be a cemetery. It turns out that the urban myth was true, as radar was able to detect graves at the site, indeed confirming it as a forgotten cemetery. Further research revealed that the Locust Hill Cemetery was the first African American cemetery in the 1860s in Trenton, where 10 black civil war veterans are buried. The city of Trenton declared the location a historical site, and it is now going through a restoration process in which the black lives lost here will be properly memorialized and will serve as a educational facility. Part of the restoration process involves the development of a serenity garden, which will be adjacent to the cemetery and will serve as both a park and an ecological educational site for kids, as the Assunpink creek runs through this area. The City of Trenton had already planning to restore this stretch of the Assunpink as a shared use greenway, serving as a wonderful complement to the cemetery restoration. The area where the future serenity garden will be is currently an overgrown, vegetated area. This is where the collaboration with Biology faculty members came in. Before the clearing of the area for landscaping, Mr. Ward wanted to be equipped with a survey of the land – to know which species were indigenous vs invasive in order to deduce which species should be preserved in the development of the serenity garden. Species surveys took place in two settings, and were carried out by two different Biology classes this semester.
Dr. Morrison’s Plants and People class focuses on connecting plant biology to human society. A portion of the class focuses on plant conservation and why it’s important, and this year she has tried to tie in social justice and race themes more overtly (talking about topics such as racist redlining policies which led to less parks and green spaces in communities of color, and the concept of food deserts which are more prevalent in urban areas, mostly populated with people of color). Getting her class involved in the Locust Hill Cemetery project fit right into the course goals. For two lab periods, students went out to the site and their work there involved “characterizing the type of flora and their approximate abundance across parts of the site”, Sid Gupta described, a sophomore Biology major in the class. Sid explained, “we used transects to divide up the location and in pairs, surveyed different sections by collecting plant specimens and recording how many of those plants we observed in our plots. This activity fit in to the goals for the development of the site because it was designed to provide feedback to the site developers on which flora are commonly occurring, invasive, or endangered species on the site and whether or not their removal or preservation was recommended for development of the Serenity Garden.” Students had positive experiences during these lab periods and were pleased to experience the impact that their lab activity had on the Trenton community. Sid commented saying, “I think the most important part of the activity was realizing how biodiversity is not a topic that is important only in regions of particular natural beauty, like the Amazon or the Appalachian Mountains, but also in regions as close as our own neighborhoods and that preserving biodiversity can come down to protecting endangered species and removing invasive ones in our backyards.” Dr. Morrison is compiling the students’ work into a report for Mr. Ward to evaluate what types of plant species are at the site. She also went to the site herself and identified numerous tree species, marking those that were indigenous and worth keeping before the site was cleared.
Dr. Wund’s Ecology class also went to the site for a lab period to survey invertebrates present in the Assunpink creek, which is adjacent to the overgrown site that will be cleared for the development of the serenity garden. It was important to document invertebrate diversity in order to learn how the restoration of the area will impact species diversity. Sophomore Biology major, Naileny Rodriguez in the ecology class explained, “Our overall goal was to assess the richness of a community using the Shannon index and other statistical tools. Our group wanted to understand what the diversity of the creek looked like, considering the pollution around the area from a history of manufacturing plants.”
During the lab period, Mr. Ward was present and explained not only the history of the site to the students, but also their impact on the site. He explained to students that they were contributing to preserving history. Dr. Wund described the students being excited about the work and how they could see the vision of the site. “It’s a beautiful spot, and it’s easy to see the potential for it to be an ecologically beautiful place”, Wund described. Naileny commented, “This activity made me feel good because I was applying what I learned in class to help create a difference, instead of passively learning concepts for the sake of the course. This activity impacted me more since Trenton is my hometown, it makes me happy that I am giving back to my community, and giving a hand in something that can benefit the entire community. By working with Assunpink Creek, we can apply what we learned with this lab with other ecosystems that have been affected by human activity in similar ways to help restore those communities.” In the end, Dr. Wund provided Mr. Ward with a list of invertebrates currently present in the creek with pictures. Dr. Wund will continue to survey species richness in the creek as he’s applied for permits to collect fish, next.
Dr. Butler has also been involved in the project this past semester. His main role has been to catalogue the bird species that use the site. He hasn’t involved students as of yet, but in summary, he’s been able to identify ten species of resident and migratory birds using the site. More specifically, he has observed “migratory Cape May and Magnolia Warblers on their journey south, refueling themselves on insects in the vegetation near the graves at the site”. Dr. Butler expects to conduct more surveys in the Spring semester, involving his research students. His goal is to observe as many species as possible at the site, before the habitat changes during the clearing that will take place to create the serenity garden.
This has been an exciting project for our Biology faculty and students to be involved in. The goal was not only to categorize the current diversity of plants and animals, but to serve as resources as the community leaders develop the ecological center. This collaboration is likely to continue into the future with Biology student involvement surveying species richness. The plan over the course of 15 years is to say, “What does the place look like now, compared to then?”, as the habitat changes with the restoration and develops over time.
For more information:
- TCNJ Biology Department
- Dr. Wund’s page
- Dr. Morrison’s page
- Dr. Butler’s page
- Locust Hill African Cemetery
See below for a gallery of more images of our Biology students and professors at Locust Hill (click on images for hi-def versions). Thanks to Algernon Ward, Janet Morrison and Matt Wund for providing pictures.
– Jennifer Aleman, PhD, SoS Grant Writer